Pan’s Labyrinth opens with a shot moving in a reverse: It’s night and a young girl lies on the floor as blood streaming from her nose begins to shrink back in. It’s striking, haunting, horrifying and tragic, when you see it for the first time you’re not completely sure what to make of it, or at least not yet. The young girl is Ofelia and director Guillermo del Toro indicates something crucial about her character. Ofelia is dying, but just as the light in her eyes begin to fade the camera zooms into their overwhelming blackness. From there we see, at a distance, a similar girl running through a vast array of ancient cloisters and spires. A narrator describes the scene but the image alone tells us all: A princess is trying to escape her kingdom of darkness, and as she ascends a spiral staircase her world becomes brighter. As she reaches the top of the staircase a bright flash overpowers her and, as the narrator describes, the princess is consumed by the sunlight and becomes a mortal.
In the next shot we see Spain in 1944. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place after the Spanish Civil War, just as dictator Francisco Franco ascends to power and, for over the next 30 years, becomes one of the country’s most maligned rulers. In a considerably less abstruse establishing shot we see a caravan of well heeled cars (for rich people), inside one of them is Ofelia, an inspirited young girl, and her pregnant mother. The two are traveling to meet Ofelia’s stepfather, Captain Vidal, the despotic head of a backwoods military compound. There he reigns over the area’s inhabitants with a rigid (and evil) authority indicating that he’s the compound’s veritable dictator. Guillermo del Toro’s world is oppressive, scary and real. So where does the fantasy come into play?
Ofelia is a bookworm who relishes in her space and freedom. So much so that when all the cars stop (to relieve her mother of a debilitating morning sickness) Ofelia veers from the caravan’s path. Deep in the woods she encounters a strange insect which, in fact, happens to be a fairy. One night the fairy visits Ofelia and, urging her to come with it, she follows it to a stone labyrinth hidden in the wooded outskirts of the compound. There she meets a weird being dubbed the Faun, he’s made of earthy skin, boasts a dubious affability and wears an off-putting, cat-like smile. The Faun’s words are elongated and grandiose, he lures Ofelia with the promise of riches of eternity inside a fairytale kingdom, and refers to her as its long lost princess who had run away from the kingdom. Ofelia, an idealist, accepts the Faun’s terms. To obtain her immortality Ofelia must complete 3 separate tasks, each one strange and terrifying. Guillermo del Toro’s world is magical, mysterious and make-believe. So where does the realism come into play?
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of two vastly contrasting textual layouts. Since its release they’ve spawned several theories and perspectives of what the binary concept of fantasy & reality in the film actually means. A more pessimistic perspective assigns Pan’s Labyrinth two worlds as a eulogy on the power of escapism, how Ofelia’s entrenched journey through mystical realms are products of childish delusions created to help the girl come to grips with a harsher reality. Guillermo del Toro, however, despite encouraging people to make-up their own assumptions of the film, believes that the fairy tale kingdom in Pan’s Labyrinth was real. Which means it has to be, right? Since its release 10 years ago ideas have swelled into even more convoluted arguments, all of which are theoretical and, unfortunately irrelevant. Films, like Pan’s Labyrinth, can show us reality and fantasy, but neither description consigns the film to be either real or fake. As the fantasy novelist Lloyd Alexander is quoted to have said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
Reading a good book, as Ofelia does, doesn’t offer any sort of escape from her stepfather’s reign of terror but broadens her mind to life’s endless possibilities, outside of consigned oppression, militaristic fascism and psychological totalitarianism. There is a character in Pan’s Labyrinth, Doctor Ferreiro, a physician and a pacifist, who secretly sympathizes with the rebels fighting Captain Vidal. He questions the Captain, something the Captain hates, and at times the Doctor even undermines him. The Doctor’s deciding moment comes in the form of an insult, aimed toward the Captain, which in essence reflects the film in its entirety: “But Captain, to obey, just like that, for obedience’s sake . . . without questioning . . . that’s something only people like you do.” Ofelia’s mother, on the other hand, acts as an antithesis to everything the Doctor stands for, the woman is confined to the security of her abusive husband’s autocracy. In a heartbreaking sequence the woman literally casting her life (manifesting as a mandrake root) into the fireplace and says to Ofelia, in a tragic rejection of life itself, “Magic does not exist. Not for you, me or anyone else.”
Then we have characters like Mercedes and Ofelia, two people who seem to exist on the polarizing center of obedient confinement and rebellious liberation. Both Mercedes and Ofelia seem to be the respective protagonists of their own stories. Mercedes is an insider for the rebel battalion her brother commands. She acts as a maid, working undercover to learn of Captain Vidal’s battle strategies, as well as smuggling things out of the compound to supply his men with food, medicine and other kinds of sustenance. Ofelia, on the other hand, seems cut-off from the conflict despite being very much in the midst of it. Her mind, instead, seems intent on completing her 3 tasks where she must remain unquestioningly obedient to the Faun’s stringent terms. We know where their hearts lie, Guillermo del Toro likes these characters, but their choices and actions are fraught with complex moral dilemmas. Not even the fairy tale aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth comes with easy answers . . .
In Pan’s Labyrinth’s climax we see Ofelia with her infant brother running toward the labyrinth. It’s in the midst of a decisive battle where the rebels begin outnumber the compound’s soldiers. Captain Vidal is hot on her trail, carrying in his hand a pistol. As Ofelia arrives to the labyrinth’s center the Faun is there to greet her. This time though he feels oddly unwelcoming, carrying the knife she obtained during her second task. The Faun presents her with a third task: To procure a small drop of blood from her brother. Ofelia backs away, hesitant to listen to the Faun, and outright refuses to harm her brother. By this point Vidal arrives, and much like the Faun, he too wants Ofelia’s brother. Vidal can’t see the Faun but sees Ofelia and her brother clearly. He delicately takes the brother from Ofelia’s arms and, with striking visual reserve, he shoots the girl.
Pan’s Labyrinth ends the same way it begins, but this time it’s not in reverse: It’s night and a young girl lies on the floor as blood streaming out of her nose. This time we know who she is. This time the moment, instead of being played for mystery, is played for a devastatingly tragic grandeur. Dying, Ofelia sees the kingdom she was promised. Is it a delusion? Did she pass the Faun’s test? We don’t completely know but it’s happy and resolute. Ofelia is congratulated by the Faun, but for what? She refused to complete the third task. Well, not exactly. The Faun reveals that by refusing to take the blood of the innocent and, ultimately, for thinking for herself she had won her reward. It’s almost too happy of an ending. The shot dissolves back to the dying Ofelia. What is del Toro saying about Ofelia, or the Spanish Civil War, or about people in general? In a satisfying closing note, Captain Vidal surrenders the son and dies at the hands of Mercedes and the remaining rebel battalion, but not before Mercedes shows one last act of defiance:
Vidal: “Tell my son the time that his father died. Tell him—”
Mercedes: “No. He won’t even know your name.”
In the world of fairies, fauns and eternity, Ofelia’s goodness earned her a happily ever after. In the world of dictators, wars and tragedies Ofelia’s goodness earned her a sad, lonely death. Whether Ofelia’s dying visions were illusory or real we can’t deny del Toro’s simple truths. Happy endings don’t exist in the real world, the good are punished and the wicked are rewarded. And like those who sought to liberate their country in the Spanish civil war Ofelia’s self-determinism came at the cost of her life. As she lays dying, Mercedes grieves over her lifeless body. A strange image follows, Ofelia smiles. Why? Because like the runaway princess in the opening Ofelia is too finally escaping her kingdom of darkness.